Double Effect (Louisiana State University Press, 2020) is Martha Serpas’s fourth book of poems and it is a captivating read. Serpas is a technically gifted poet, but her primary talent is her ability to immerse the reader in a profound experience that goes beyond the literary. Winner of the L.E. Phillabaum Poetry Award for 2020, the book is divided into four sections: Good, Bad, or Indifferent, Voluntary, The Means, and Compensation, providing a roadmap for understanding the theological concept of double effect. Her poems center on the self, spirituality, nature, and Cajun culture in ways that are memorable, leaving a deep impression on the reader long after they have finished the book. The poems in this collection are rooted in memory and experience, but also a deep flowing energy that surges just below the surface.
“Local Gods” is a short poem in two stanzas that illustrates the importance of locality and nuanced belief systems cultivated by subcultures operating within contemporary American society. Here is the first stanza:
I have always been a fan of local gods.
Whereas if the omnipresent God is ever present,
then the Cajun god is in one bar,
sitting on one stool, nursing the same
Jack and water, ready to talk—who’s ya daddy
che’? While Cajun goddess stirs a roux,
round and round, like a wheel of fortune
spun every time to a dark-roast fan.
This first part of the poem sets a vivid scene of Cajun spirituality from the perspective of the speaker. She imagines a male and female deity in their preferred environments: the bar and the kitchen. The masculine god “is in one bar, / sitting on one stool” and is flirtatious and sociable. The feminine god works slowly and carefully over a stove, “stirs a roux, / round and round, like a wheel of fortune.” Both images of the gods are specific and provocative, but also, very human, which sets them apart from the “omnipresent God,” whose name is capitalized and has no personal characteristics attached to it. The Cajun god and goddess are more tangible because they are relatable—the speaker humanizes them affectionately. Here is the second stanza:
Whenever I get down to Golden Meadow,
I pull over at the town hall shrine
for a moment with Our Lady
of Right Here Right Now
as she opens her arms to the serpent
as it opens its mouth to cry.
The first stanza of the poem sets up the second stanza beautifully. It reinforces the importance of nuanced belief and how religious concepts are interpreted according to location. Here, “the town hall shrine” consists of “Our Lady / of Right Here Right Now,” which contains sexual implications, but also deeply compassionate undertones. This shrine is a source of genuine, tangible comfort for the speaker, and for the people of the town: “…she opens her arms to the serpent / as it opens its mouth to cry.” This is a very earthy image, much like the images of the Cajun god and goddess. Our Lady of Right Here Right Now embraces the serpent—traditionally known as the religious symbol for temptation—who is emotional and in need of comfort. The last stanza of this poem provides a brilliant counter-narrative to the creation story in terms of how the divine female is represented and her connection to the serpent who does not seek to tempt her, but rather, regards her as a source of comfort and safety.
“Diagramming the Live Oak” is a wonderful poem written in seven couplets. It showcases Serpas’s skills in technique and form while also engaging with complex ideas about spirituality in regards to a localized setting. Here is the poem in its entirety:
A couple drinks. Then what is usually
a schematic of solitude, of grandeur,
What is frequently a proof of posterity,
an assumption of unattainable wisdom—
Because we die, we all die, and the oak lives,
those imagined rings like so many glasses
Set down on a warm wooden table, same
spot, early evening after early evening—
Became, in my watery mind, a crazy diagram,
conditional, subordinate, parenthetical,
And I could not follow it for all its impossible
modifiers and negations until ultimately—
Yet not—after another drink—I ended up appositional,
swelling alongside the resurrection fan.
The genius of this poem consists of a fusion between abstract thought about life and death and the use of gorgeous metaphorical images. The speaker has had a few drinks and is contemplating the rings inside a live oak, comparing it to glass rings: “like so many glasses / Set down on a warm wooden table, same / spot, early evening after early evening.” This image is utterly captivating because it brings together the images of the live oak, the wooden table, and bar glasses repeatedly set down. These aren’t merely images, they metaphorically explore the concept of life experience; the tree goes on living, collecting rings inside its body, but people aren’t as complex as the trees, and the speaker meditates on how difficult it is to grasp the concept of immortality even as she attempts to visualize the rings inside a tree. It “Became, in my watery mind, a crazy diagram, / conditional, subordinate, parenthetical…,” “…I ended up appositional, / swelling alongside the resurrection fan.” Water is also a strong component to the poem; glass rings form from condensation and come to represent the rings of the tree for the speaker, whose mind is “watery” from having drank too much and attempting to master the abstract ideas of mortality and immortality. The couplets also provide lightness and rhythm as a wonderful counterbalance to the heavy meditative nature of the poem.
Double Effect is an excellent book for readers who are interested in poems that fuse lyric and form in compelling ways, but it is also worth reading for the deeper spiritual concepts the book explores and how those ideas are translated through poetic form. Serpas is especially gifted at writing poems that inhabit personal experience, spiritual understanding, and the minute. This book brings together Serpas relationship to her parents, nature, spirituality, and Cajun culture; she also gives space to simpler moments: there is a beautiful poem about a tree frog, a lyrical meditation on compassion, and a masterful two-line poem that encompasses the collection perfectly as a whole, “La Porte d’en Arrière”: “If the front gate’s too narrow, / Pass by the back.”
April 12, 2021